In 48 hours, the Blue Jackets will drop the puck on the 2015-16 regular season at Nationwide Arena against the New York Rangers.
But before we can get to the main event, we’re going to take you through this edition of the Blue Jackets, a version that many believe to be bigger, faster, stronger and deeper than ever before. A thrilling end to the previous season – a 15-1-1 clip to be exact – gave way to an exciting summer, one punctuated by the acquisition of Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks and the free agent signing of veteran center Gregory Campbell, most recently with the Boston Bruins.
Add those players to a group that has largely been intact for a couple of years now, and you’ve got a team that is skilled, competitive, and most of all, hungry. The disappointment of last season is still very fresh, and all the hot finish did was to pour more gasoline on the open flame.
The Blue Jackets had seven players with at least 35 points last season. They had three (Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen and Scott Hartnell) rack up 60 points or more. They scored 227 goals, the most in franchise history and the 12th most in the NHL, ahead of teams like the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and others.
That’s to say there is plenty of talent among this group of forwards and, given the age of many of the players, even more potential yet to be realized.
“It’s a good thing,” coach Todd Richards said before camp began. “(The team’s depth) creates competition for positions and competition for ice time. We’re expecting a real competitive camp.”
Columbus got its competitive camp. There were young players who impressed, and perhaps, a bit of a surprise that relative newcomer William Karlsson (acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in March) made the team out of training camp thanks to a solid all-around effort.
Johansen is 22. Saad is 22. Boone Jenner, healthy again and raring to go, is also 22. Cam Atkinson, a 20-goal scorer once again in 2014-15, is only 26.
You get the picture.
So, to kick off the new campaign, we’re going to take a closer look at the line combinations employed by Richards during training camp. The head coach has given these trios plenty of time to work together and, aside from the jumbled lineups of preseason games, has kept them together.
Unless you’ve been living underground the last few weeks, you’ve heard by now about the Blue Jackets’ new No. 1 line. In three exhibition games, they were responsible for 10 goals and 25 points, including a couple of eye-popping games in Nashville (Sept. 29) and in Columbus (Oct. 3).
It’s tough to fathom that these three have only spent a couple of weeks together. There’s an acute awareness of where each other is on the ice, often making short passes in tight spaces to keep plays alive and keep the defensemen guessing.
Here’s another problem: who do you check? Who do you focus on if you’re the opposition?
“I’ve been really impressed with how fast we’ve been able to click,” Foligno said. “It says a lot about the guys I’m playing with. With Brandon, (it’s been great) just being able to play with him and get to know him, and Joey's picking up right where he left off…we’re obviously so comfortable playing together. To have a guy like Brandon who can gel with us and play the right way has been a lot of fun.”
When these three began camp as a line (one of four all-new combinations assembled by Richards and the coaching staff), it immediately jumped out as one of the more intriguing possibilities. Of course, with line combinations, you never really know how long they’re going to be together, but the Blue Jackets have been committed to giving these four trios the opportunity to build something.
Dubinsky had a number of different line mates last season (and, due to injuries, the same could be said for most returning players on the Blue Jackets roster) but when he was healthy and in the lineup, he was a difference maker. Richards often refers to him as one of the team’s engines, a guy who drives practice and pulls his teammates into games because of his intensity and focus – and there are two like-minded players on that line when you include Jenner.
Jenner was nearly a 20-goal player in his rookie season two years ago (and he was one of the team’s best players in the playoffs), but a back injury unfortunately cut out a big chunk of his 2014-15 season. He’s had a strong camp, a strong preseason and he will be a player to keep an eye on because his impact can be significant.
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Rene Bourque also had his season cut short due to injury, but he’s been skating well in camp and his game seems to be picking back up. He’s another big body up front, giving the Blue Jackets a size advantage down low and these three can sure cycle the puck – and it’s something they’ve been working on every day in practice.
For a team hell-bent on playing fast and tenacious on the puck, it seems to fit these three players like a glove.
“The pace keeps picking up,” Jenner said. “You can see it in our practices and in the games we’ve played. (The style) is good for myself and it’s something our team needs to do to be successful. We want to play that in-your-face style and keep coming and be relentless.”
One of the Blue Jackets’ most exciting lines late last season was comprised of wily veteran Scott Hartnell and youngsters Alexander Wennberg (center) and Marko Dano (right wing). While Dano has since departed and is now part of the Blackhawks organization, Richards saw enough from the Hartnell-Wennberg tandem that he opted to keep them together to open camp.
Filling the void on the right side seemed like a task perfect for Cam Atkinson, who possesses great speed, elusiveness and the ability to find open space to shoot the puck. Wennberg, who showed flashes of being a confident distributor of the puck last season, meshed well with Atkinson right away.
Hartnell had a terrific season a year ago and, despite losing one of his “kids” in the Saad deal, looks to be in position for another productive campaign.
“I think our line has a little bit of everything,” Wennberg said. “I like to make plays and find the open spaces for my line mates, and Hartsy and Cam like to shoot the puck, so I think that’s what makes us a good line. Hartsy goes to the net, too, and Cam has a great shot, so I just try to get the puck to them and be responsible as their center man.”
Like the other three opening night lines, this group has a little bit of everything: veteran presence, explosiveness mixed with instant offense, and a highly-intelligent center whose offensive game is only starting to blossom.
Matt Calvert is hockey’s version of a Swiss Army knife. Richards feels comfortable using him on any line and in any situation, knowing full well that he’ll provide a high-energy game and can chip in with secondary offense. First line, fourth line, penalty kill, power play…Calvert’s got the ability to slot in wherever needed, and at least to begin the season, he’ll open with two players he’s never played with.
Campbell is the newest of the two newcomers, signing a two-year deal on July 1 after a successful five-year run in Boston (including a Stanley Cup win in 2012). He’s known as a heady two-way player, an elite penalty killer, and a team-first guy who sets an example based on the way he plays the game.
Clarkson was injured in his first game with the Blue Jackets last spring, played two games with said injury, and was then shut down for the balance of the season. This is almost like a fresh slate all over again for him, and the 31-year-old is eyeing redemption after a tough go in Toronto playing for his hometown Maple Leafs.
ON THE VERGE: KARLSSON, BOLL
There were a few young players and prospects who were expected to make concerted efforts toward cracking the opening day roster, but Karlsson’s name was (perhaps undeservedly) lost in the shuffle. Wild Bill joined the Blue Jackets at last year’s trade deadline in the deal that sent James Wisniewski to Anaheim, and he was called into action shortly after his acquisition as the injury bug continued to bite the big club.
Karlsson admitted to being more comfortable with the systems this fall and it’s shown through in his performance. He was one of the team’s most consistent players in training camp, was a regular fixture in the exhibition lineups, and through it all he was determined to give everything he had to his cause.
Jared Boll worked tirelessly this summer to improve his speed and his skating, two things that are becoming more and more essential to success at the NHL level. It’s a fast game these days and Boll knows that, and he’s looked like a player who took that to heart over the summer; Richards was very complimentary of Boll’s training camp and has really liked how he played in the preseason games.